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Jessica Molaskey: Joni Mitchell

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If you're a jazz singer who's going to take on a Joni Mitchell tribute album, you had better know what you're doing. To pull it off, you need a keen understanding of Joni's outlook on life and what makes her sophisticated music tick. As a singer, you must sound enough like her to stir the juices of her fans, but you can't simply mimic her recordings. You have to take Joni's music to another place without losing her fingerprints. Walking this fine line requires quite a voice, and Jessica Molaskey pulls it off perfectly on her new album, Portraits of Joni (Ghostlight). Molaskey delivers all of Joni's black-coffee vocal flavor supported by smart jazz arrangements. This is one of the smartest jazz vocal albums of the year.

In October 2014, I spent two hours with Joni (above, in the late 1960s) at her home in Los Angeles while interviewing her about the writing of Carey for my WSJ “Anatomy of a Song' column. I know that Joni's music is complex and difficult. Her songs are highly sensitive and vocally challenging. The melodies alone are tough, and Joni's voice frequently jumps up high from a low register for emphasis, which must be a back-breaker. As Joni told me during our conversation, “I’m an alto who uses a pseudo soprano— a falsetto. Then that disappeared with age. Some of my songs are whispered, some of them are belted and some are whispered and belted in one song. There’s a lot of dynamic to them."

Molaskey (above) handles this vocal obstacle course splendidly. She's accompanied by guests, including drummer Duduka Da Fonseca (who plays with enormous sensitivity), pianist and organist Larry Goldings, saxophonist Harry Allen, trumpeter Randy Brecker, and guitarist-husband John Pizzarelli along with many others as the album's personnel changes from track to track. The jazz-flavored arrangements are by Molaskey and Pizzarelli, except for Both Sides Now and All I Want, which are by Larry Goldings, and Little Green is by Molskey and Madeleine Pizzarelli, Molaksy and Pizzarelli's daughter.

The songs on the album are Help Me, Dreamland/Carey, A Case of You, The Dry Cleaner From Des Moines, Marcie, In France They Kiss On Main Street, The Last Time I Saw Richard, Raised on Robbery, Little Green, Circle Game/Waters of March, All I Want/Blue, Chelsea Morning/Aquelas Coisas Todas, Both Sides Now and Big Yellow Taxi. The album is worth hearing for The Last Time I Saw Richard alone.

Molaskey clearly worked hard on the vocals to get them just right. Same goes for her arrangements and background vocal overdubs. I can imagine Joni listening to the album, her head cocked slightly while her eyes remain fixed on you, her mouth smiling broadly with her lips sealed.

My only tiny quibble is the decision to slide Antonio Carlos Jobim's Waters of March behind Joni's The Circle Game. Waters of March is a perfectly good song with it's own beautiful properties, but somehow its commercial values and familiarity adds whipped cream to an already elegant and subtle work. The Circle Game is one of Joni's finest constructs and would have worked perfectly well without the Waters echo. Same goes for adding a heavy bossa to Chelsea Morning. But these are nits. More important, Molaskey's new album has Joni's strength and vulnerability along with her gentle soul, which is why I love it.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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